The New York Times, November 19, 2013
The former republics of the Soviet Union have been sovereign, independent countries for almost 22 years, free to develop economic and political relations with any foreign nation or trading bloc they choose. That point appears to have eluded President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who is doing everything he can to prevent these countries from developing closer ties with Europe — even threatening to cut off the gas that one country needs to get through the winter.
“The Cold War should be over for everyone,” Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany said this week. Not, it appears, for Mr. Putin.
Next week, six former republics — Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine — are scheduled to meet with leaders of the European Union in Vilnius, Lithuania, to discuss enhanced economic, political and diplomatic ties with the union. In 2004, Lithuania, along with Estonia and Latvia, became the first former Soviet republics to join the union.
To qualify for stronger ties, the six nations will have to demonstrate progress on democratic and judicial reforms required by the European Union. That may prove difficult for some, like Ukraine, which has, so far, refused to allow its imprisoned former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, to travel to Germany for medical treatment.
Europe’s use of trade leverage to encourage democracy is constructive and reasonable. Russia’s attempts to bludgeon former vassals into continued economic dependence are not. The European Union offers something real and attractive. Russia, which wants them to join the customs union it has formed with Belarus and Kazakhstan, offers threats.
In September, a Russian deputy prime minister warned Moldova that it might lose access to gas this winter should it strengthen links with Europe. Then it banned imports of Moldovan wine. Next came threats to expel tens of thousands of Moldovans working in Russia. Yet, far from backing down, Moldovan leaders have continued negotiations with Europe and are now working to reduce the country’s economic dependence on Russia.
Moscow’s bullying has had more success in Armenia, which counts on Russian support in its territorial dispute with Azerbaijan, and has agreed to join the customs union. Even Lithuania, already a member of the union, has been subjected to trade harassment, presumably in retaliation for hosting next week’s Vilnius meeting.
Similarly, Russia has threatened to slow Ukrainian imports with exacting customs inspections, although the main obstacles to stronger Ukrainian ties with the union involve domestic politics. In any case, Ukraine, which is economically robust, is perfectly entitled to choose its own course, as are the other former Soviet republics.
In the waning years of the Soviet Union, its last president, Mikhail Gorbachev, talked optimistically about a post-Cold War Europe stretching undivided from the Atlantic to the Urals. Mr. Putin, however, seems to long for a return to the days when an iron curtain divided the Continent, darkening the horizons of the satellites and Soviet republics to the east — nations that now seek the enjoy more fully the fruits of independence.